Oscars: Kobe Bryant Brings Star Power to Animated Short Race

Dear Basketball Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

Few, if any, animated shorts have ever had the bona fides of Dear Basketball, a five-minute-and-22-second-long film about Los Angeles Laker great Kobe Bryant's life and career that was produced by the hometown hero himself, animated by Disney legend Glen Keane and scored by music legend John Williams. Now, appropriately enough, Kobe and Co. are set to crash the best animated short Oscar race.

Dear Basketball, a tearjerker inspired by the 2015 poem of the same name through which Bryant announced his retirement from the sport (he narrates the film, too), premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April — and then, The Hollywood Reporter has learned, had an Oscar-qualifying run at Laemmle's Claremont 5 cinema in Claremont, Calif., in June.

While virtually anyone who can afford to make a movie and screen it for a week can claim to be Oscar-eligible, the fact is that Dear Basketball actually looks like a formidable contender.

Bryant, who long has spoken about what a huge student and fan of animation he is (he particularly loves Japanese anime and classic Disney-style) and is said to have ambitions of creating an animation-devoted division at his Newport Beach-based Granity Studios, is among the most popular people in the city of Los Angeles. L.A., of course, happens to be home to most members of the short films and feature animation branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the group that determines the best animated short Oscar nominees.

Keane, meanwhile, is about as highly regarded an animator as there is, having worked at Disney for 38 years — during which he personally animated characters like Aladdin and Pocahontas — before leaving in 2012 to form Glen Keane Productions. And, further to the film's advantage, he animated Dear Basketball in the hand-drawn style that seems to be as popular with members of the short films and feature animation branch as any, even as it becomes less commonly seen in the industry. Dear Basketball, which Keane has called "the most difficult thing I've animated by a mile," is the product of black-and-white sketches, accented only by bits of purple and gold, the Lakers' colors.

And then there's Williams. Bryant first reached out to the legendary composer two years before retiring from basketball, hoping to observe and apply Williams' approach to music — from the way Williams first develops ideas to the way he structures a composition — on the court. The two became fast friends and, as a gift to Bryant, Williams took two weeks off from working on Star Wars: The Last Jedi to score Dear Basketball — the first traditionally animated film that Williams has ever scored. Bryant subsequently spoke at Williams' AFI Life Achievement Award tribute in June 2016 and then, earlier this month, read "Dear Basketball" at a Hollywood Bowl concert while Williams conducted a performance of his score by the Los Angeles Philharmonic behind him.

Williams, of course, is about as popular with the Academy as anyone in history. The only individual who ever accumulated more Oscar nominations than Williams' 50 was — wait for it — Walt Disney.